Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s music was never easy to pin down, but on his new album BRAT, now under the mononym NNAMDÏ, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist seems focused on confounding expectations. BRAT, out today via Sooper, is a record about self-analysis, a real-time attempt to change for the better by picking apart personality traits one by one. That’s a huge lyrical undertaking on its own, but only an artist with NNAMDÏ’s absurd range could change gears so quickly from one song to the next, inspecting each different emotion in turn and relaying their precise colors in detail.
On BRAT, at his most anxious, Ogbonnaya channels late-’90s and early-’00s emo bands, particularly the wide-open guitars of American Football and even the utopian indie of Anathallo; when he locates a vein of confidence, he goes electric and turns towards oddball rap; knotty jazz rhythms always linger at the sides, ready to charge in and confuse whatever easy answers he’s come up with. Ogbonnaya is often compared with Tierra Whack, and there are candy-colored moments here that do recall Whack World’s hyper-sweetness, but the two artists are only really comparable through the abundance of their ideas. On BRAT, Ogbonnaya seems restless but utterly in control of his craft.
When I spoke with Ogbonnaya on the phone last week, he was still getting to grips with self-isolation — though it’s hardly an unfamiliar state for him. “I record everything, no one else is in the studio, there's no engineer,” he says of his process. “It's literally just me for however long I'm down there, so I'm no stranger to the isolation. A lot of the songs come from that, and I think people will be able to hear that and latch onto that during this time.”
To help us get to grips with the album as a whole, Ogbonnaya walked us through each song on the album in order. Listen to BRAT below, read our interview after the jump, and find NNAMDÏ on a ridiculous-looking tour with Sleater-Kinney and Wilco later this year (hopefully).
"Flowers to My Demons"
The FADER: This is a very quiet song to start the record with.
NNAMDÏ: I really like songs that build, like a dynamic flow of emotion. A few songs on this record, this one included, the lyrics came almost immediately, which is very rare for me. That's a very special thing, and that usually ends up being one of powerful or notable — a song that people remember. Musically, it has a little influence from all these different things that I grew up listening to, like African music. I did listen to some emo stuff like American Football when I was growing up. So I think there's definitely a little of that in there. All that stuff influenced my guitar playing, for sure.
This is the first time on a record that demons come up. What do those demons represent on this record?
Acknowledging the things that are hindering us is important in overcoming them. Any person that's been through any sort of [12-step program], that's the first thing. If you’re completely oblivious or don't self-evaluate or reflect on your decisions, you're just going to become stagnant or spiral. This was just me acknowledging my flaws, acknowledging routine behavior that may be good to work on and change. But also, in that acknowledgement, knowing that some of [those demons] are just part of my human nature. I’m trying to make the distinction between going back to things that are detrimental to me and going back to things that are just my natural behavior. Not beating myself up about it if I slip up. I like to beat myself up a lot about making mistakes.
This is a complete change of pace. Do you feel like that is the other side of the coin from "Flowers to My Demons"?
They feel far apart. They encompass the whole vibe of sounds on the record, and I think it [pushes] away any notion that someone knows what's going to happen. I think it prepares people for a story.
Do you think about people's expectations and intentionally confounding them while you're making things?
Sometimes it comes up, but the weird thing to me is that after I release music, people will listen to it in groups of people or at parties. That's strange, because this is such an isolating process. It's not a pretty process for me, recording — it's very nitpicky, kind of monotone and mundane at points. To witness people enjoying it in groups is a very beautiful thing. I like to encourage people to listen to it with headphones by yourself first, and then do whatever you want after. That's how you can feel more [of] what I was feeling.
You say that you're very self-critical when you're producing. Is it hard to get yourself into the mood to write a song as confident as "Gimme Gimme"?
No, because that's definitely just part of me, I'm just very aware of how silly that can be. I think a lot of very confident people don't have self-awareness, which is why they can be confident — they're just not thinking about how they look or feel. But I think it's good to gas yourself up.
This one is really sugary and short. It reminds me of Tierra Whack.
I feel that. I'm so pumped that Tierra Whack exists and I feel like a few things I've put out have gotten that comparison. I think I connected with her because I feel like we have humorous approaches, but [we’re] also trying to paint a very vivid picture. "Bullseye" in particular is a very playful one. I put that third because it combines themes of the first two — it has a mixture of a real guitar and real bass and real drums, and also electronic sounds with an electric drum kit. It felt like the natural progression after those first two, to ease people or bring people back down without there being another drastic shift.
It's also the first time that you bring in the second person. You start talking to somebody else, and it seems to be about a relationship of some kind, which develops into a theme as the record goes on.
One thing that I was very conscious of with this record was not making it obvious what type of relationship the songs are about. I think it's up to people to decide if it's a romantic relationship or just a relationship with a family member or a friend.
"Everyone I Loved"
This is the first time the record gets a little bit uncomfortable. There are parts of it that hint at quite significant anxieties.
It's about my approach to relationships in general: family, romantic, and friendships. I feel best when I've had a lot of time to be by myself. I need to be by myself for long periods of time. As selfish as that might be, I don't have to think about anyone else at the time, I can just worry about myself and get out all my thoughts. I was not very good at balancing that with relationships. I definitely realized people were trying to make time for me and I wasn't reciprocating it, but not maliciously. I'm very lucky to have anyone. Anyone's lucky to have anyone who'll care about them for any reason.
This is another hard shift.
I know it's a very intentionally abrupt shift, but it's not awkward. It just mellows out the chaos of “Everyone I Loved.” But “Wasted” also has to do with communication — that whole song is just about being open to receiving information. I think a lot of us want people to be open, but aren't ready to receive whatever the other person says.
There's real desire tied up with that song as well, a lot of need on both sides, which threads through the record.
Definitely. The whole record is about wanting and needing — finding the balance between what you want and what you actually need and what you actually end up pursuing.
Then you've got this euphoric song in “Glass Casket” with its dreamy production. Does it feel like a happy song to you?
I feel like it's just a realization, an epiphany. It’s a dialogue between myself and people I know. It's about creating art and pursuing a career in art when it's not sustainable at the time, but still doing it because you believe that it will be at some point, and [you] believe that it's important. It's about the doubts I had while I was thinking about pursuing [art], and knowing that were jobs out there that would be less fulfilling for me and would suck to do, but I would be better off financially and stable — able to help my friends and family. It was a very difficult choice to make, going 100% towards music, knowing that at the time I didn't have the resources or funds I needed to make it seem like a reasonable thing to do.
How often do you have to remind yourself of why you do this?
I think this album was the last time. There's no going back. I know the importance art has on my life and I can see it, how much it influences other people. That's why people get fucking Kylie Jenner or any rapper to be a spokesperson for anything, because especially younger people will listen to people in entertainment more than they'll listen to like, I don't know, a fucking teacher. If I actually want to have an impact, and if I go hard at this and do well, that will be a bigger platform to reach people.
"Perfect (In My Mind)"
This condenses a lot of those thoughts.
It does tie into “Glass Casket.” I was very particular about the order of the songs. That one is a similar story. It's about situations being out of your control. Right now… I’ll speak for me personally: I had this whole plan. I had the release show planned out, I had a whole tour and I was like, "Damn, everything's coming up Milhouse." And now, all of sudden, things are outside of my control. It's humbling in a way to know that you're really not in control of everything, that you can only control so much of your life.
This another one of the more lyrically challenging songs on the record. It seems to capture a lot of the album’s darker side, this idea of you stepping back from certain social things and then buying back into others, reconsidering all of your personal relationships.
It's very much about analyzing where you're expending the most energy and if it's giving you anything back in return. There are a couple of relationships that I realized weren't right for me, I think because just people have their own issues to work on, and it was definitely more exhausting than it was rewarding or uplifting. That's a very hard decision to make, especially if it's people you're close to. You have to find the balance and keep your distance as much as you're able to and just work on it at a slower pace.
"Prince Went Up"
You keep that rather confrontational energy in here, which seems pretty straightforward, especially in these horrible economic times for artists...
A lot of people take artists for granted. It's like they soak it up and they want more and more, and then they don't want to support. Or people want to book you for shows or use your music in something, but they're just like, "Oh I can give you a nickel and a bag of old socks.” It's about knowing your self-worth and having the confidence to ask for what you think you deserve. That's the thing I've learned: Ask for what you think you deserve.
What's the one thing that you've taken away from this economic disaster about the industry and how it works?
First and foremost, streaming companies need to learn how to distribute that money, so artists get a higher streaming rate, because if there's anything like this again, or any situation where people can't be in crowds, then that's a lot of income for people. And I really encourage people who are musicians to have other hobbies that they do for fun, and maybe out of those will come another source of income. Have options, or things that you can do during times when you can't perform music.
What do you want music fans to take away from this? What's the easiest way for them to support the artists they love right now?
Buy merch directly from the artist. If you can't, buy it from local record stores. Those are the people that are going to hurt the most, people lower down, who don't have excess income. And be active. Tell people you like the things that they do, if you like them. It's very easy, very quick, but it makes a big impact.
This feels like a depression song.
Absolutely. It was also the last and quickest song to write and record. I was just not feeling good at all. That's definitely a reminder of a head space I don't want to get to again. It felt important to include.
The more artists I talk to, the more I realize it must be hard to write a song when you don't even want to get out of bed. How much of an uphill battle is writing through depression?
Luckily in my darkest moments I feel like my ingrained sense of humor still twinkles through. It's part of my nature and also a little bit of a coping mechanism. I feel really lucky.
And it has its place, because it opens up into a song that’s literally called “It’s OK,” where all that depression seems to dissipate.
That's the reason I decided to actually include [“Really Don’t”]. It's just to remind people that if they feel down, they don't have to hide it. It's all right to not feel good all the time, you don't have to always be in public. It's important to have some outlet where you can be open, whether that's like a therapist or that's your friends or family. A lot of artists will internalize their sadness or depression or stress because they feel like they have to always be this image of positivity, or they feel like that's what being a role model is.
Why did you put this one last?
It encompasses me growing up in a religious household, putting faith in a higher power or just putting faith in other people. Knowing that people are human and people make mistakes and you have to take matters into your own hands as much you can to find your own joy and find your own happiness. That looking inwards is more important than trying to get any sort of validation or influence from an outside source.
It seems like a lot of the religious influence of your childhood has stayed with you.
Oh, definitely. Both my parents are ministers, so it was very much ingrained in my life. And whether or not I practice in the same way, that's a different story. But I definitely pick and choose with the things that were important, a lot of life lessons that were important in my growth.
Do you always play your music for your parents?
No, I don't send them any. They hear it when it comes out like everybody else.
How do you think they'll react to this album, “Salut” especially?
I really don't know. I feel like it can go both ways. I think that they'll think it's a powerful song, but I'm not sure how they'll interpret what I'm saying. I'll just have to wait and see.